A federal judge in Seattle will soon decide whether a local deportation case should extend to thousands of children across the country.
The central question is whether children who face deportation should be entitled to government-appointed attorneys.
Just a few months ago, Gustavo Gonzalez was one of these kids - in a Seattle courtroom, facing deportation, with no attorney to represent him.
"I was afraid, I just didn’t know what was happening," Gonzalez said in Spanish.
Gonzalez dressed up for an interview – charcoal suit, striped tie. It’s the suit his aunt bought him for court. But most days he’s in a T-shirt and jeans, like other ninth graders at his high school.
He says his favorite subject is English. He dropped out of school in Guatemala after his father became sick with AIDS. At age 17, he crossed the border illegally.
Gonzalez got lucky in his legal case. He called the number on a brochure, and a pro bono attorney saw that he was eligible for a special visa. He now has a green card and wants to make it count.
“I want to be someone in life," Gonzalez said. "Seeing how difficult it was to get here, I want to make something of it.”
About 40,000 children like Gonzales pass through immigration court every year - at least in recent years. They’re minors and facing deportation on their own without a parent. Many came to the U.S. to escape gangs, poverty or violence in Central America.
Attorney Matt Adams is with the Northwest Immigration Rights Project in Seattle, one of the groups that filed this case. He says it boils down to constitutional rights and how you define a “fair hearing.”
"Is it just to have a child who’s there by themselves, maybe with an aunt who’s by their side, or a school teacher in the audience who brought them there?" Adams said. "Do we really not care that they’re not in a position to present their case?”
Attorneys who represent the children filed this case in 2014. Their argument is that every child who faces the threat of deportation alone should be entitled to a lawyer, at the government’s expense. Specifically minors who entered the country on their own, without a parent or legal guardian.
Their attorneys argue the constitution gives them the right to a full and fair hearing. And say that doesn’t happen when children are forced to represent themselves against a federal prosecutor.
The suit is against the U.S. Department of Justice. The department has fought since the beginning to have the case dismissed. Its attorneys argue that Congress should decide this issue – and how to pay for it. A Justice Department attorney also pointed out Congress has outlined some rights for these children.
To that, Judge Thomas Zilly asked, “Could Congress tomorrow take away those rights?”
Yes, came the response.
A decision from Judge Zilly is expected a few weeks. That will determine if this case moves forward as a class action – to represent children throughout the country.